A major biography of Martha Graham, one of the most important artistic forces of the 20th century, the legendary American dancer and choreographer who upended dance, propelling the art form into the modern age, and whose profound and pioneering influence is still being felt today.
Vivid, painstakingly researched ... The choreographer’s story spills beyond the contours of her life and into the modernist currents that Graham navigated brilliantly. Through his fiery, inexorable protagonist Mr. Baldwin seeks the headwaters of American dance ... Mr. Baldwin’s research is rigorous, his prose eloquent and muscular if a tad overwrought, mirroring Graham’s terpsichorean instincts. He weaves in innovations from other disciplines, detours that don’t feel like detours ... [A] scrupulous attention to form.
'This is the story of how Martha Graham became Martha Graham,' Baldwin proclaims in the opening pages. I was both intrigued and skeptical upon reading these words. Great! But how would such a clarifying mission be accomplished? ... I confess I was puzzled why Baldwin embarked on his account of Graham. His notes and bibliography attest to the considerable labor of searching and sifting through source material ... Perhaps it’s the thrill of the chase for this serial biographer, or perhaps he simply fell under Graham’s spell. The book is peppered with his close readings of her work, many of which tip into breathlessness. I was moved by his ardor more than his analysis ... In a time when we’re worn out by all that we can know and all that we do know, there’s a peace and even a pleasure in accepting that, however much we want to understand, the past must necessarily keep some of its secrets.
It’s the spark of a potential justification for yet another Graham biography, one that would situate her work more firmly in the historical context of American modernism. That’s what Baldwin’s subtitle promises...Rather than that story, though, Baldwin mainly gives us facts ... Throughout all this, Baldwin deploys what his extensive bibliography and endnotes show to be an enormous amount of research, little of it new. He buries Graham in undiscriminating heaps of it. Just about every time a new person enters her life — and it’s a long and impressive list of the influential and once-famous in American theater, music and visual art — he offers a dispiritingly formulaic capsule biography: date and place of birth, alma mater. His method is the opposite of hers: Where Graham cut down to the essentials, Baldwin amasses the tangential ... Occasionally, he corrects a fact or two that Graham (or de Mille) misremembered. But because these corrections aren’t consequential, they seem further evidence of missing judgment. When Baldwin is describing Graham dances that exist in a describable state, he sometimes achieves eloquence ... But these accounts of the dances are low on fresh insight, and what’s there is buried in the data dumps, too. As soon as the opportunity arises to discuss something other than dance — books, music — Baldwin fastens on it disproportionately, as if in relief ... Fortunately, there are eyewitnesses for him to quote. The most vivid and revealing statements in the book come from the dancers who gave their lives and bodies to Graham’s experiments, absorbing her tantrums and abuse for little to no pay, because they believed...The testimony of dancers, in fact, is one resource Baldwin could have profitably used more, especially about Graham’s technique ... As it is, Baldwin’s habit of identifying the sources of many of his plentiful quotations only in the endnotes adds to the sense of a collage of research, a paste-up job without authorial guidance as to the significance of the accumulating detail to the story the author is trying to tell ... The story under Baldwin’s story of American modernism seems to be about the costs of Martha Graham becoming Martha Graham, and the charred archive a flame leaves behind.